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Obama, the new Bill Clinton?

Barack Obama looks set to become the 44th president of the United States. With national and state polls being what they are, McCain can’t win. So it’s time to take a look at what an Obama presidency would be like — and more interestingly, whether such a presidency would truly be very different from Bill Clinton’s presidency. One thing Obama should watch out for, is not making the same mistakes Clinton made.

When Bill Clinton beat contender George H.W. Bush in 1992 and entered the White House, he had everything going for him. He won many ‘Red States’, giving him a solid mandate and a lot of political capital, and he had a Democratic Congress and Senate to boot. Nothing could stop him from rolling out a true Democratic political programme.

Boy, was he wrong.

Guess who stopped him? That’s right: his friends, the Democrats in Congress. When Hillary Clinton went straight for the Holy Grail of Democratism, namely the establishment of Universal Health Care, she behaved like a wild elephant in a porcelain cabinet, crashing and thrashing everything inside. The Republicans managed to sell her plans as being ‘Socialist’ or even ‘Communist’, in the states where incumbent Democratic Senators and Representatives had to defend their seats.

So when majorities of voters in those states came out against Clinton’s health care plans, incumbent Democrats made an about-turn. They wanted changes to the plans. When Hillary Clinton refused, those Democrats – fearful of losing their well-paid daytime job in Washington, D.C. – voted down the plans.

By then, the midterm elections of 1994 were upon them, and the health care debacle was used by the Republicans as paint to colour the Democrats as closet Socialists. That, combined with scandals surrounding some Democrats and a highly effective Republican propaganda campaign, resulted in a ‘Republican Revolution’ that swept away Democratic rule from Capitol Hill for 20 years.

Faced with a hostile Congress, Bill Clinton had to abandon his strategic plans and focus on tactical gains instead. He could no longer win the war for Democratic causes, but could at least try to win some public battles, in order to be re-elected and save his presidency, and thus his legacy. He succeeded for a while — until Monica Lewinsky showed her appetite for cigars, of course.

Fast-forward to 2009. Barack Obama will enter the White House as a Democratic president, very likely backed up by a strong Democratic majority in Congress. Like Clinton, Obama also wants to finally establish Universal Health Care and he will need Congress to sign off on it, too.

The question is: will it?

So far, the similarities between now and 1992 are striking. Just like in those days, there already are so-called ‘Blue Dog Democrats’ in Congress, Democrats hailing from solid Republican ‘Red States’ who will have a hard time convincing their constituencies that a collective public, government programme is not ‘Socialist cockamamie’.

And those are just the incumbent ones. Many more, from even more ‘Red States’, are set to join their ranks on November 4, when Republicans seem set to be ousted in large numbers, in favour of conservative Democrats.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton made introduction of Universal Health Care one of his priorities in his campaign, he failed to get many Representatives and Senators to publicly back that cause before his election. So when he was inaugurated, few members of Congress felt obliged to sign up for his health care plans.

Barack Obama has so far held several meetings with incumbent members of Congress on matters like national security, social security and the economy, but he has thus far failed to get a public commitment from them on his health care plans. He also hasn’t asked first-time contenders in the Red States, who seem to be sailing to victory, to sign up.

That could spell trouble. It would be very wise for Obama to get those public commitments now, also from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid, before the election is held. It is very important that at least those plans finally get turned into law, because the financial crisis, the deep recession and the enormous damage done by the criminal Republican administation, will already put a strain on Obama’s treasury.

He will have to make some tough choices, ditching some plans to save others. But it could very well be that ditching his universal health care plans – one way or the other – will force him to make the same decision Clinton made: abandoning the war in favour of winning some battles.

Napoleon Bonaparte made that decision during the difficult years of 1813 and 1814, and he lost the war. Just like Bill Clinton did. Let’s hope that Obama is the smarter one.